June 29, 2006

Floods cripple riverside areas in northeast

By Jon Hurdle

WILKES-BARRE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Swollen rivers
spread muddy water through homes and streets across swaths of
the northeastern United States with more storms forecast on
Thursday as tens of thousands of people waited to go home.

The Susquehanna River receded early on Thursday, lifting
the threat of catastrophic flooding in the historic
Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre, where up to 200,000 people
had been ordered to evacuate. But water was still rising in
parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Days of torrential rain followed by floods had killed at
least 16 people in the eastern United States by late on
Wednesday. With buildings submerged, roads washed out and
rivers surging, authorities declared emergencies and ordered
hundreds of thousands of people evacuated across much of New
Jersey, New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

"Yesterday was a war zone in the northern tier of
Pennsylvania -- we choppered out over 1,000 people from
rooftops, from second and third floors of their homes,"
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said in an interview on CNN.

The Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre was prepared for the
worst overnight but levees held and the volume of water coming
into the Susquehanna from tributaries upstream was less than
had been anticipated, officials said.

"The danger has passed and life will return to normal,"
said James Brozena, county engineer for Luzerne County.

Authorities said they would be assessing damage to
underground utilities such as gas and sewage that could be
damaged, as well as to homes and businesses in the area.

"It's hard to say we dodged a bullet, considering all the
damage and danger, but so far the news has been good today,"
Rendell said. He said officials were watching the Delaware
River in southeast Pennsylvania, which had yet to crest.

The focus also moved to Trenton, New Jersey, on Thursday,
where the National Weather Service forecasted flooding on the
Delaware would peak in the afternoon.


The weather service also warned there could be severe
thunder storms across New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania,
Delaware and Maryland later in the day.

Binghamton, New York, remained partly flooded and the
nearby town of Conklin was the worst hit in the area, according
to Broome County spokeswoman Darcy Fauci. Hundreds of people
were airlifted from Conklin and Fauci said it would take days
for the water to recede.

"Today is going to be a big day for doing a lot of damage
assessment and getting into more areas," Fauci said.

Anxiety in Wilkes-Barre, nicknamed "The Diamond City" in
the 1800s for its coal riches, had centered on whether 28 miles
of levees would withstand the pressure of the flooded river.

"The levee system has performed very well. It has certainly
done its job," said Alan Pugh, chief of public safety for
Pennsylvania's Luzerne County.

A map posted by the weather service showed flood warnings
spread over some 40,000 square miles of the United States, an
area roughly the size of the state of Kentucky or the country
of Iceland.

There was a flash-flood warning for Montgomery County in
central Maryland, where engineers were assessing the state of
the Lake Needwood Dam, the National Weather Service said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' levees
broke, flooding 80 percent of the city and killing over 1,800
people on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Brozena said the Wilkes-Barre levee system, which was
reinforced in 2004, was more modern and less vulnerable than
the New Orleans flood walls.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Coffey, David Morgan,
Matthew Verrinder, Ellen Wulfhorst, Claudia Parsons, Doina